Sunday, May 9, 2010
Lowe's Wins Copyright Battle over Light Fixtures
The facts showed that Progressive had hired a nationally-acclaimed designer of light fixtures, who had come up with a feur-de-lis design for residential light fixtures. The design was a success, but consumers soon complained that the same fixtures were available at Lowe's for less. The designer registered a copyright for the design, at first rejected by the Copyright Office, and then granted after reconsideration. Lowe's had gotten its design from Bel Air Lighting. In its motion, Lowe's contended that the light fixture design was not copyrightable because the light fixture is a useful article whose artistic features were inseperable from its utilitarian features.
Progressive admitted that the light fixture was a useful article, which is normally not copyrightable unless its design incorporates artistic features seperable from the utilitarian aspects of the object. There are two types of seperability, physical and conceptual. Progressive attempted to argue that the arrangement of the features that create the apperance of a fleur-de-lis was conceptually seperable. Judge Thrash relied heaviliy on the Eleventh Circuit case Norris Indus. Inc. v. International Tel. & Tel. Corp., 696 F.2d 918, 923 (11th Cir. 1983) in making his decision.
The court noted that Norris held that conceptual seperability does not extend to functional components of utilitarian articles no matter how artistically designed. Examples of such features are artistically designed watch faces or a wheel cover that simulates a wire wheel (the object at issue in Norris). In the opinion, the court cited deposition testimony of the fixture designer admitting that the arms of the fleur-de-lis were used to thread wire through to the light source. Also, the court quoted the Copyright Offiice Compendium opining that the mere fact that the shape of a useful article is analogous to a work of sculpture or could have been designed differently does not create conceptual seperability, and that therefore in that instance the fact that a light fixture might resemble abstract sculpture would not transform the fixture into a copyrightable work. Progressive attempted to distinguish Norris by the fact that the object in Norris did not have a registered copyright, and the object in this case did have one. The court rejected this, noting that a certificate of copyright registration is only prima facie evidence of the validity of the copyright. The court felt that Lowe's had successfully rebutted the presumption of validity attached to the registered copyright, and granted Lowe's summary judgment motion.